Peter Mabeo and the pursuit of “difficulty” in reality
January 16, 2024
Adam Wakefield

A visitor stepping into Founders Factory Africa’s (FFA) Johannesburg offices is greeted by a large open-plan space containing a curated variety of iconographies. These include shacks, hand-burned FFA monograms surrounding a lounge, angled metal panelling that houses the office’s wiring, and a multipanel bookcase-slash-shelf that draws the eye through its colour and size. Hugging the office is expansive views of the Johannesburg skyline north and west, leaving little yet much to consider.

Peter Mabeo is the man responsible for designing and curating this space.

On Friday, 23 September, Peter returned to the FFA offices for the first time since he completed his work, where he joined Fiona Mulligan and Roo Rogers, FFA’s Office and Operations Manager and CEO, respectively, to talk about how the space came together, its qualitative character and the emotions that Peter hopes to engage with through his work.

A “controversial” yet perfect appointment

Peter was not the immediate choice to shape the look and feel of FFA’s office. Before his appointment, the FFA leadership team had received proposals from established interior design firms that, according to some on the leadership team, would better attract the type of entrepreneurs FFA sought to attract at the time.

That doubt persisted even after Peter’s appointment, yet by 2022, the decision to work with Peter had “really paid off, but it continues to be somewhat controversial,” as Roo noted.

As a renowned designer and artist, Peter described his work in the following way, speaking in a soft and thoughtful tone:

“I work with craftspeople, artisans, artists, and many different types of people to try and work in a way that’s very, for lack of a better word, normal for us. But, at the same time, normal for us doesn’t necessarily converge very well with the professional world. We had to find ways of, not just from a design context, but from a functional standpoint and communication standpoint, to try and let things develop because we had no other way of contextualizing what we do.”

“Slowly but surely, we started growing our collections and meeting different people, like this [the FFA] project. Sometimes we work in the field of art, sometimes design, sometimes architecture. There are many, many ways that we are interested in working but always doing it in a way that is so restrained but free at the same time. ”

An open brief and accommodating what “is” through design

The written brief was to make the office Africa-centric, inclusive, and representational. However, the brief Roo delivered to Peter was “There is no brief. Just be you”. The result is a space that speaks to Peter’s wide depth of work and experience but which delivered on the written brief in unexpected ways.

“Walking up to our front door, visitors don’t understand what’s on the other side. As soon as they walk in, they understand our story… the meaning of Founders Factory Africa. It explains our culture,” said Fiona, who was intimately involved in the project from start to finish.

“I think the outcome has been exactly what you [Peter and Roo] have said. It has helped the team to be creative and innovative while feeling comfortable. Even the types of materials you have used, the art pieces placed, says a lot about you as well as us.”

For example, the three shacks in the office — which are used as meeting pods or workstations — were constructed from materials sourced from informal sellers in and around Johannesburg.

“We went to the nearest informal settlement and we asked, ‘Who supplies the material?’. ‘Oh, there’s a place. There’s a guy here who has used roofing sheets.’ We went to him and he sold us a whole van load, which we cut up here and put together,” Peter said.

These shacks are among the most provocative pieces in the FFA space, with Fiona noting that not all visitors received them the same way. For example, an investor who was among the first people to visit the office once it was completed was left doubting their involvement upon seeing the shacks.

However, for others, such as FFA’s CFO Thabiso Foto, the shacks are a constant reminder of poverty. Thabiso shared that she grew up in a high-density township in Zimbabwe, which did not have shacks but rather small concrete houses. In a way, for her, these shacks are a representation of townships across Africa and at the core, a reminder of oppression and exclusion, which is uncomfortable.

While leaving her with mixed feelings, Thabiso appreciated the thought Peter had put into them, which is to constanty remind us all that the shacks are a representation of how the majority of Africans are excluded from the economy, a problem that FFA seeks to solve through its work with emerging founders and startups.

A person’s identity is shaped by their struggles

Thabiso’s reaction, and others like them, were in Peter’s view the “best compliment”. He intentionally sought to create what he termed “difficulty” in the hearts and minds of those who looked at the shacks. The reason why is that a person’s struggle, the difficulties they have faced, are an inseparable part of their identity. In a broad African context, shacks also represent a richness of culture that those who grew up in a suburb do not understand.

For those who grew up in a shack, it was their everything since there “was nothing else”, Peter suggested.

“Everything we do, it’s not necessarily trying to be stylistic, not trying to be representative or inclusive. It’s really literally seeing what’s around us and not rejecting our truth. I grew up rejecting so much of myself, like you, [that leads to] a lot of mixed emotions. You literally have two personalities when you go home and when you come here [to work],” Peter said.

“I felt like Founders Factory, after speaking to Roo, represented one of those possible opportunities where there could be a kind of collision, like an open conversation, and it’s not easy. Part of that difficulty has expressed itself in the project. Where you [Thabiso] and I grew up, let’s say, doesn’t belong in our professional life.”

These experiences — the different worlds Africans step in and out of daily — are part of the contemporary African experience. When travelling to Johannesburg from Botswana to speak at FFA, Peter learned that South Africa’s Heritage Day holiday was only a few days away. The meaning of the holiday caused Peter some pause as he considered it in relation to his work at FFA and the feeling of “difficulty” that he hoped to impress upon anyone entering the space.

“What is Heritage Day? To what? You wear your attire and you’re proud but you look into your work and there’s nothing, it’s really romanticized in a way. I like the fact that Founders Factory and Roo was open enough to let us do it and to put you in a position of difficulty. That was the intention, to make things difficult for you,” he said.

This “difficulty”, taking viewers of his work to a place that made them feel uncomfortable, is a source of great succour for Peter because in it lived the “daily culture” that had shaped him. It is real, and therefore rich. Yet, too often, a person’s daily culture becomes subsumed by a more shallow, superficial understanding of their lived experience because working in broad strokes is easier to contemplate and digest versus dealing in real, daily realities.

“I’d go to an exhibition in Italy and I’d have no identity. People wanted to hear about my shacks or about the struggles we went through but nothing about my daily culture. What you see here [in the FFA office] is really just an expression of daily culture,” Peter explained.

The wiring and cabling system within the office, as a separate example, was purposefully housed in angular, non-linear casings because as a discipline, it is “totally fresh” in an African context compared to more conventional, “extruded aluminium” casings brought to the continent from the West. Through ensconcing the wiring in a bespoke way, Peter believed that it better reflected the pureness of how a local craftsman would do it, using their skills of “folding and panel beating metal”.

“If you go to where you grew up, in the villages or places that have been neglected, the level of cultural contamination is much less. I was talking to someone yesterday about their project… where they’re working on eradicating invasive species in Africa. And I thought, ‘What about the invasive culture?’” Peter said.

“You don’t realize that the culture that you have is so strong, [a culture] that the world needs, that the world does not have. At the same time, you are because of the difficulties you had in trying to make your way.”

Peter hoped that the dichotomies presented within the FFA office — with the shacks but one example — would aid the development of innovative products and technologies that allowed existing cultures to flourish instead of suppressing them.

“It’s not trying to innovate so that the shack can become more. It’s more ‘innovate’ so that you can accommodate the shack as it is. To me, that’s what real innovation is, making room for everyone so that the world can really be a mix of ingredients instead of this ‘business of inclusion and inclusivity’. It’s so structured. I want to create the world as we look at it.”